Turkey ‘directing’ severe religious freedom violations in northern Syria – U.S. commission

International observers and independent agencies have witnessed severe religious freedom violations ‘’directed’’ by the Turkish government in northeast Syria, said Nadine Maenza, vice chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Turkey has intervened in northern Syria in three different military operations since the summer of 2016; taking control of wide swathes of territory, and opening Turkish schools and branches of its top religious authority, the Religious Affairs Directorate, along with other services. 

On Wednesday, the USCIRF organised a virtual hearing hosting prominent regional experts to discuss how issues of religious freedom have been impacted since Turkey took control of these areas, as well as in other parts in northeastern Syria. 

On the same day, the U.S. State Department released the 2019 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a press conference for the launch of the report, which found “religious freedom conditions in Turkey remained worrisome, with the perpetuation of restrictive and intrusive governmental policies on religious practice and a marked increase in incidents of vandalism and societal violence against religious minorities.”

Turkey is the only NATO member country included on the “special watch list”.

Turkey has been included on the special watch list of the commission this year as well, as in the last several years, for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), Maenza told Ahval during a video call on Wednesday.

Religious freedoms have deteriorated and continue to deteriorate in recent years both in Turkey and territories occupied by the country, according to the assessment of the independent, bipartisan federal commission, tasked with monitoring the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.

"We have seen when Turkey invaded (territories in) Syria," they "take away religious freedom" and "impose harsh conditions," Maenza, who was appointed to the commission by the U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018, said.

Maenza painted a grim picture of areas under Turkish occupation in northern Syria.

"First, civilians are killed or forced to flee," she said, noting that the areas occupied by Turkey were religiously diverse, with various minorities such as Christian Yazidis, Kurds, Arabs and others.

Speaking on what types of violations are happening under the watchful eyes of the Turkish forces, Maenza said Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian forces have "instituted very harsh conditions on residents, forcing women to cover, the forced conversion of Yazidis to Islam, in addition to activities which are somewhat considered to be ethnic cleansing".

Genocide Watch, in a June 9 report, has called the transfer of population in territories under Turkish government control a crime against humanity.

"Civilians have been subjected to horrific crimes against humanity committed by Turkish forces and Turkish-supported militias. Kurdish towns have been bombed and destroyed, some with white phosphorus, a war crime,” it stated in the report. "Hundreds of civilians have been summarily executed. Kurdish and Yazidi women have been kidnapped and subjected to sexual slavery. Secret prisons hold hundreds of Kurds who are routinely tortured."

The Genocide Watch report went on to say that a significant amount of property had been expropriated and turned over to thousands of Syrian Arab refugees, resettled from Turkey.

"Many Christians and Yazidis have fled to Europe or Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey is forcing the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes. Turkey is perpetrating the full ethnic, religious, and demographic destruction of northern Syria,’’ it added.

Maenza said accused the Turkish government of pursuing "demographic change" in the region and forcing Syrian refugees hosted inside Turkey to be relocated to areas of their home country where they are not from.

These crimes are "directed by the Turkish government, by those wearing Turkish uniforms," Maenza told Ahval's İlhan Tanır.

"It is very difficult for Turkey to not claim responsibility for these areas," she said, noting that Turkish generals visited areas where the violations are taking place just a few days ago. She also added that Turkey had never denied these claims either.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar visited the border with Syria in late May to inspect Turkish forces stationed there.

Last November, the Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said that a church in Tel Abyad, northern Syria, was repaired and opened for worship. The agency also occasionally reports that Turkey is improving some religious freedoms in the region.

When asked whether the commission could confirm the claims, Maenza said no such improvement had been seen nor heard from religious communities in the area.

Those living in the region have not expressed their gratitude for the Turkish invasion, either, she added.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.